SPSFC 3 Review: Jake’s Magical Market, by J.R. Mathews

This book is simultaneously wildly appealing and viciously disappointing. Jake’s Magical Market has reached a large and appreciative audience, deservedly, but its huge length, strong pacing, and moment-by-moment character studies all serve to conceal a multitude of weaknesses and missteps. This book is the equivalent of tasty popcorn covered in sticky syrup – delicious in the moment, but afterward cleaning the gunk off your hands and weathering the inevitable stomach-ache will take the shine off.

The gods are fickle. Our governments were warned centuries ago that our world was to be integrated into a magical multiverse, but trying to maintain social power while convincing people that magical trading cards would bestow mystic powers on all – and give everyone else a reason to hunt you down and murder you to steal these powerful cards – was something they gave up on. Much like the way Jake gave up on life, settling into a comfortable non-existence as a store clerk… right up to the day he awoke to discover his part of town had been translocated into a fairytale wilderness surrounded by goblins and the undead. With everything he knew crumbling around him, it’s only when visitors from other worlds come to his store in search of rare human cultural artefacts, like t-shirts and magazines, that Jake manages to break out of his socially-isolated shell and find his people – even if those people are elves, gnomes and minotaurs. But as Jake’s powers and perspective grows, that’s not the only shell he’ll break free from…

As you can tell from that description, the book is very interested in the relationship between personal agency and power. Spider-man infamously told us that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, but we all instinctively know that isn’t true.

We live in a world full of billionaires who regularly demonstrate the power they’ve accumulated has insulated them so far from the reality the rest of us live in that their power is a joke to them. They suffer incredible apathy – one year we’re all told the billionaires are in a space race, the next not one of them lift a finger when a major crisis strikes. Power does not bestow us with the agency to actually change our world.

Caught in the consequences of the apathy of those more powerful than him – first in having to run a little store by his employer, then in being abandoned to discover this world by himself – Jake, later in the book, reflects on how apt his first magical card’s power was – the ability to freeze time. He realizes that in a real sense, his life to date was all about freezing time. About trying to put himself in a rut where he didn’t have to move, where nothing changed, where for all intents and purposes time would be frozen around him and he wouldn’t have to do more than go with the molasses-slow flow.

And yet, as he gains powers, the spark that truly shows him the way forward is when he encounters others – sometimes more powerful than himself, like an elven prince ally, sometimes differently empowered, like a massive minotaur, sometimes disempowered, like enslaved human survivors of the global change – who not only invite him to connect with a world of other people, but to reflect on how his actions will change the lives of those around him for good or for ill.

This sounds great, right?

The problem is this is all wrapped up in a plotline which resembles an aimless attempt to figure out what happens next by writing the next page instead of thinking about it. There is very little foreshadowing, neat little quirks of powers (and half the fun of this book is seeing what the next weird power is going to be) get ignored or left unused. The lack of foreshadowing is actually surprising, given that there’s a perfect tool for foreshadowing that goes almost entirely unused – the character’s main power includes the ability to see into the future.

This aimlessness is perhaps best exemplified in the title and blurb – ‘Jake’s Magical Market’ – which all promise something like a cosy fantasy romp focussed around the character’s cosy little shop where he sells fun bits and pieces, right?

Well, that’s where the story starts, but I’m afraid I have to inform you that (SPOILERS REST OF PARAGRAPH) the main character goes to war against people enslaving the remnants of humanity, is kicked out of his home dimension, becomes the equivalent of a ninja-demonic-death-assassin-carnivore who rampages through the second half of the book only to occasionally pause, wonder if he’s doing the right thing, chalk it up to PTSD in a way that felt dismissive, then goes on to murder the angelic-bodybuilder son of one of the gods running this madhouse, who attempts to take revenge on Jake – but at this point Jake has acquired powerful dimensional-time powers which allows him to time travel back to the god’s birthplace. Where his (stolen!) pet griffon casually bites the head off the monk of a dying religion who was about to ascend to godhood by consuming the remaining divinity of his deity. (Which Jake consumes, instead, in the last pages of the book.)

The book wanders very, very far away from what it claims to offer. While the moment-to-moment characterization is great – some real moments of pain and contemplation from Jake – the larger tapestry falls flat. A meaningful romantic relationship is summarized, or happens and is abandoned with little regret over the span of a few pages. Jake’s mourning of the people who were in his life before the change is compressed to a paragraph of summary then never comes up again. His ‘PTSD’ is murkily applied as a justification for his darker actions, not as a reason for him to fixate on and consider his past… because everything that seems to happen is only relevant for the next twenty pages or so.

Which isn’t really a problem, because this massive weakness in the book is completely masked by the pace – by the time you get past those twenty pages, so much has happened, so much has changed, that the circumstances of two chapters ago feel like a distant and abandoned country.

The book races faster, and faster, and faster… and whenever it does slow down, and the flaws start to show, there’s a new magic card, a new mysterious culture, a new something to distract us into the next thing. Whether by intent or by happy accident, Jake’s Magical Marketplace throws a rickety bridge over the massive pitfalls in its way, charges across, and is already past the horizon and onto the next thing by the time the bridge has come loose and tumbled into the void behind it.

It works. I don’t like that it works, but it works. And I feel like if the author can use whatever’s going on here as a strength while they work to improve the things that are lacking, there’s long-term career potential here.

So, as you can tell, I have severely mixed feelings about this book. So, let’s turn to a panel of imaginary readers with somewhat clearer feelings.

Reader the first: Casey the Collector

Casey wants there to be cool stuff they can catalogue and build a fan wiki from, things to theory-craft around. Casey is not disappointed – in addition to the cards, which provide a major source of structure in the story’s first half, there’s weird mythological races from other worlds, dungeons full of otherworldly monsters, and enough detail on travelling around that Casey will probably try drawing a map. The only flaw is that some of the little details will be swept away in the flow of the story – Casey wants to know what happened to that original dungeon full of undead! Given stuff later in the book, it sounds like the dungeon might have evolved into something else, but we don’t see it again for the rest of the book. But that’s because there’s all sorts of new stuff to look at…

Reader the second: Enthusiastic Everest

Everest wants to get swept along in the flow of story, and so long as Everest can keep going? Jake’s Magical Market delivers. There is something new going on almost every other page, whether it’s discovering a new dungeon, new power, or new friend and ally. Everest’s only issue is that it doesn’t feel like it connects up very well – with a lack of foreshadowing, the major hook for carrying a reader through the book is ‘what’s going to happen next?’, and when we finally get a long term goal for Jake, either he resolves it almost immediately and forgets about it or he’s cut off from being able to do anything about it until he collects the correct plot token/power to unlock… which he never seems to have a clear path towards. But before any of that can dampen Everest’s reading experience, there’s a weird new monster on the horizon and Jake’s got to figure out how to deal with it, quick.

There are definitely moments where I feel a little cheated by this book. There’s a concept among some readers/writers that a book makes some promises to its readers in the first few pages, and one significant factor in enjoying a book is whether or not a book follows through on that.

On the one hand, the book starts out in a place where Jake has very little agency and power, yearns for it, and it winds up in a place where he has all the agency and power. (Literally) On the other hand, everything wrapping this book – blurb, cover, title, the way it starts – promises something low key and not too serious, something comfortable. The main character is tortured for his cards in a dungeon for months and months, winds up an invisible slayer who joins then betrays a magical order of knights by very casually toying with his new powers to get out of a magical oath, leading both to self recrimination and a sense in this reader that Jake isn’t taking himself or his world seriously enough. (He kills people, often in self defence, and his first thought isn’t ‘did they have children’ but ‘what loot do I get now?’)

While the pace, inventiveness, and sheer randomness of events are going to work for a ton of readers, sadly, the overall lack of cohesion and the sense that the author was winging it – long before we even think about readers who aren’t likely to be interested in the LitRPG premise of a gamified apocalypse – lead me to think that even though this book can please a ton of readers, there are other readers, like myself, who will walk away from this one dissatisfied despite the positives.

If you’d like to see whether this quick-paced book works for you, you can find the author, J.R. Mathews, on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/stores/J.R.-Mathews/author/B09HX2CGNX

This book has not yet progressed far enough through SPSFC to require scoring. If it does, I will update this with a score.

You can find out more about SPSFC here: https://thespsfc.org

You can find all my reviews and posts dealing with SPSFC 2023 here: https://sinisbeautiful.com/tag/spsfc3/

Disclaimer: Please be aware that I am deliberately trying to take a different perspective to my usual one while judging for SPSFC 2023. Ordinarily I have a very narrow taste profile for what I like, and as part of my writerly practice I usually engage with books by tearing them to shreds and picking through what’s left to see if I can learn anything. I don’t think that’s a helpful point of view to review/judge from, and since reviews are for readers, not for writers, I’ve tried to avoid that here. (As you can see above. Your call on whether or not I succeeded, of course.)

By foozzzball

Malcolm Cross, otherwise known as 'foozzzball', lives in London and enjoys the personal space and privacy that the city is known for. When not misdirecting tourists to nonexistant landmarks and lurking at bus stops, Malcolm enjoys writing science fiction and fantasy with a furry twist.

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